Love’s Labour Lost

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Cavaliers vindicated a thousand doubting scribes this week when Kevin Love hurt his knee in pursuit of meaningless regular season wins this weekend. For reasons that remain opaque, Tyron Lue played his Big Three in this past week’s three-games-in-four-nights stretch, which included a road back-to-back in Oklahoma City and a home win over the Nuggets on Saturday.

Indeed, all three played against the crappy Nuggets, a game they won by 16 points and which Love played just under 34 minutes and Kyrie played over 35. Lue perhaps felt boxed in by the back end of the back-to-back being a nationally televised game in Oklahoma.

In fact, we were a little surprised Lue didn’t sit someone in Indiana, expecting the need to play all three in a nationally televised game. Who knows if NBA Commissioner Adam Silver spoke to Lue, but it wouldn’t surprise us, given Lue’s midday change of course, which found all three go from probably sitting to suiting up. That made the decision to play them all against the lowly Nuggets even stranger.

But when you’ve been rolling craps and making your point all night, the impulse is to keep rolling.

Truth be told, Love hasn’t played a lot more than last season, just 31.9 minute per game (mpg) versus 31.5 last year. Kyrie is playing 35.2 mpg versus 36.2 (career-high) the first year Blatt took over (ending in an injury). LeBron is the one whose minutes have soared, and Lue has less control of that (though clearly not entirely blameless). The thing is that Lue’s use of James is rolling the dice and to some extent so is his running up minutes on his starters.

Putting Love on a Shelf

With Love undergoing knee surgery this morning to clean out loose bodies and scheduled to be out six weeks. That is a little conservative for such surgery, if it is only loose bodies, as the recovery time is four to six weeks. However recovery from knee surgery can vary and there is reason to doubt whether if and how quickly Love can return to form this season.

This will be the fourth season in eight that Love won’t play more than 60 games. If Kyrie can reach 60 games this season it will be three seasons in six that he’s played at least 60 games. We’re not going to suggest they’re injury-prone but facts are, historically, you’re only 50-50 to have them all season.

In those circumstances shouldn’t Lue be a little more careful? And shouldn’t David Griffin be getting him more help rather than spending a month with an open roster spot and 10-day contracts to burn? Instead of talking luxury tax (they will play three or four multiples of prorated minimum, but still less than $1 million), they should be thinking about lost revenue from getting swept in the Finals or missing them altogether.

Before the chorus of skeptical pooh-pooh-ing awakens Christopher Robin, know that the Toronto Raptors traded streaky scoring bench wing Terrence Ross and a first for shot-blocking, three-shooting PF Serge Ibaka, closing one of their big holes for the last few seasons. They have other guys for wing scoring like Norm Powell and perhaps Brazilian project Bruno Caboclo or 2015 first rounder Delon Wright.

So not only are the Cavs losing a big – which they didn’t have enough of anyway – but their biggest rival’s emptying the claw (trade) machine of its best PF prize. People discount the Celtics but in Smart, Bradley and Crowder they have some of the NBA’s best defenders. If Love can’t dominate their mediocre frontcourt (outside Al Horford) that erases one of the Cavs big advantages. This is not to say anything of the streaking Wizards.

None of these teams would seem to have a chance against a healthy Cavaliers squad but while Love and Smith will be back before the post-season, there’s no guarantee they’ll be their old selves. Love’s injury makes Williams’ acquisition that much more important.

While Frye will get Love’s starting minutes, Williams is well-suited to play with LeBron on the second team. He is a good roll man and has a good body to set picks for James, not to mention his penchant for drawing fouls on his forays to the basket. The second squad’s long lacked somebody who can get to the line.

Usual Suspects

The Cavaliers don’t have a lot of assets to trade or a huge salary slot to stick them into. The dream acquisition, if you could call it that, would be Jeff Withey, a real rim protector on the Jazz, who barely sees time behind Rudy Gobert. He’s played in 31 games all season and about 8 mpg, and is averaging 3 blocks per 36 minutes. Withey was actually drafted (by Portland) with the second round pick (#39) the Cavaliers sent Boston in 2011 for Semih Erden and Luke Harangody.

Almost two-thirds of Withey’s shots are within 3’ of the bucket. He does seem to have a little pick-and-pop game, with a 54.5% career shot from 10’-16’ and 44% from 16’ to the arc, though they collectively amount to about 12% of his shots.

When the Cavaliers sent Birdman to the Hornets for a protected second round pick (that the Cavaliers will only receive if Charlotte has one of the five best records in the league), they opened up a slot that was rumored to be in part to create a landing spot as the third-team in a trade. Right now the Pelicans are in deep discussions with the 76ers for Jahlil Okafor.

New Orleans have a couple bigs they don’t want, Omer Asik, who is in the first year of a $44 million contract they’re already regretting, and 7-2, 250 pound Frenchman, Alexis Ajinca. He started 11 games but has only played in 22 all season, averaging 14.4 mpg. He averages 1.7 blocks per 36 minutes, but makes turnovers at a rate similar to Timofey Mozgov.

Ajinca is a good rebounder on both offensive and defensive boards and has a nice midrange-game. Almost 40% of his shots come from the midrange area extending from 10’ to the arc and where he’s shot 43% for his career. He doesn’t draw a lot of fouls, but is an 80% career free throw shooter, making him a possible late game replacement for Tristan if Korver’s free throw lessons don’t hold.

It seems awfully risky at this point to be waiting for vets to be cut to chase a ring. While Andrew Bogut is on everybody's wish list, Dallas is still in the playoff hunt, and there's reason to doubt he wants to leave. We all remember how Joe Johnson was "definitely" coming if he was bought out and, of course, he took his talents to South Beach. Given the circumstances it doesn't seem wise to wait on a maybe when the need is definite.

Final Analysis

Love will be coming back before the end of the season. Six weeks out is the end of March. That would leave eight or nine games to get ready for the playoffs. That should be enough to shake off the rust, but how close he can get to normal remains to be seen. Given James’ limited window, a move seems imperative, if only to shore up the frontcourt just in case.

We imagine that James is probably going to play even more power forward this year in the playoffs. He only spent 40 percent of his time there last year but in 2015 played power forward or center 73 percent of the time. (He spent 89%-96% at 4 or 5 in Miami his last two years.) That would seem to dictate an immediate cut in his minutes.

To accommodate the loss of Love and James’ reduced minutes ,new players will need to be brought in quickly. Not just a big, but a point guard to take those duties off Jame’s plate. He’s likely to be needed much more in the frontcourt this postseason and the Cavaliers should endeavor to facilitate that transition sooner than later. There are plenty of point guards available and out there. Mario Chalmers is probably the most attractive option, if he can get back from last years Achilles Tendon injury.

While rumors abound that Larry Sanders is coming back, and he could probably help the Cavaliers, not sure we’d want them to stick their neck out on a guy who hasn’t seemed all that dedicated to the sport. James only wants the fully in. Maybe Sanders could shape up and fly right, but we don’t think it’s worth the risk, given the discontinuity it would bring to an offense that is humming at a high level. (Of course without Love we’ll see what happens.)

This is no reason to panic. But it probably is a good time to check that false bravado at the door. There are no guarantees of a repeat or even the Finals. Last year was last year. We’ll find out about this year, one day at a time.

You can follow us online on Twitter @CRS_1ne and read our columns with increasing frequency as the playoffs approach. If you want to relive last year, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better way than my book, King James Brings The Land a Crown: The Definitive Tale of the Cavaliers’ 2016 Title Run. You can get a signed copy from my website, KingJamesBringsTheLandaCrown.com or CavsChampions.com.

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